India: a Foot in Each Century – India

Although a bit run down in places, New Delhi was exactly how I imagined it to be, but the real surprise was discovering that Old Delhi was also very much alive and thriving. Our guide described India as having a foot in each century and he could not have phrased it better.

New Delhi is very much a capital city with grand colonial buildings left over from the time of British rule. In the hazy sunshine the vista from India Gate up the Rajpath to the presidential residence and palatial administration buildings is impressive. In contrast Old Delhi must be the noisiest, busiest place on earth and you get a feel for what it must be like living in a city with a population of 15+ million.

We bravely opted to see Old Delhi from the back seat of a Delhi Rolls Royce – a rickshaw. Our chauffeur skilfully manoeuvred us through three lanes of traffic, interrupted by the constant flow of pedestrians fearlessly walking between the vehicles. The road was a free-for-all but there was no feeling of anger or aggression in the air. Instead the constant tooting of horns became a language in itself saying, “I’m behind you”, or “watch out, I’m passing on your right”. It felt like driving through the middle of an orchestra warming up. There are more two wheeled vehicles in India than anywhere else in the world with the majority being motorbikes and we were told you need three things to drive in Delhi – good horn, good breaks and good luck!

Then there was the surprise of seeing our first cow, camels pulling carts and men pushing heavy loads on the back of wooden wagons. It was impossible to believe that we were in Delhi in the 21st century and hadn’t slipped through a time warp. Turning off the main road and feeling slightly embarrassed at how hard our driver had to cycle, we dived deep into the narrow streets crammed with shops selling everything from fireworks to silver and could smell the green apples on the carts that we passed.

The only evidence that modern technology had found its way here is the web of electrical cables that spanned the length of the streets. In places they were so thick they blocked out the sun. Our hearts were beating loudly as we weaved in and out of the traffic and smiled at the shopkeepers sitting on their doorsteps or at other rickshaw passengers passing within inches in the opposite direction.

Emerging at the steps leading up to the Jama Masjid temple we are met by half a dozen hawkers selling trinkets and postcards waiting on the tour buses. From the vantage point of the entrance gate you can see Old Delhi at your feet and once inside the temple’s enormous courtyard there is a peace and tranquillity that a few minutes ago would have seemed impossible.

Our visit to Old Delhi was the perfect appetizer for what was in store in the cities of Agra, Jaipur and Udaipur, except in these cities the animals on the streets matched the number of vehicles. The journey to each and every temple and fort was an adventure and we couldn’t get enough of the sights that surrounded us. The five-hour drive from Agra to Jaipur, however, tested our nerves and we were relieved that this was the only transfer we were making by road. Even our cheery driver, Mr Singh’s nerves were becoming frayed towards the end and he seemed to go through his packet of chewing tobacco at an alarming rate.

If we weren’t bouncing from one pothole to another we were zigzagging across the road, narrowly avoiding the traffic doing likewise in the opposite direction. Camels pulling bulging stacks of hay the size of small circus tents seemed oblivious to the traffic zooming past them. Black bears attached to their owners by steel chains were the roadside entertainment along one stretch of road. Cows would suddenly appear from a field and walk across the road, or a packed minibus would suddenly stop to drop off one of its squashed passengers. I didn’t expect to miss the potholes but I soon realised they were a good speed deterrent. Once on the smoother roads the ride stopped being interesting and instead became frightening.

Despite arriving a bit shaken it was worthwhile seeing the countryside, and the towns we passed through were fascinating. Our necks were sore as we tried to soak in all the incredible sights that lay on both sides of the road. Barbers shaving faces under shady trees; women filling jugs full of water from rivers and carrying them on their heads; farmers working in fields surrounding straw houses and water buffalo cooling down in swampy ponds covered in water lilies.

I would never have imagined it possible to be fascinated by road works but when the workers include ladies wearing brightly coloured saris in saffron and fuschia pink you feel the urge to reach for your camera. Wicker baskets full of broken up concrete were elegantly balanced on their heads and old-fashioned picks used to break up the old tarmac before being loaded onto wooden carts pulled by camels. We also witnessed the building of the motorway from Mumbai (Bombay) in the south to Delhi in the north and were surprised to find everyone using before it was finished.

The time spent in the old palaces, forts and temples provided a welcome respite from the noise on the streets. It is amazing how the horns magically vanish as soon as you step foot inside the sandstone or marble walls and you can almost hear the flapping of the butterflies wings as they hover over flowers and fountains. Green parakeets and kites fly overhead and squirrels scurry across the grounds. With the help of our guides we constantly felt like we were stepping back in time as each room and courtyard was brought to life. Every building we visited provided another layer of history as we were told epic stories of love and war of Mughals and Maharajas. The engineering skills matched those of other great dynasties around the world with clever air conditioning systems, water recycling and the 17th century observatory in Jaipur, home to the world’s largest sun-dial, is still accurate to six seconds.

Every city we visited had a specific local craft, which had been handed down from generation to generation from the time that the palaces and forts were built. The precious stones inlaid into marble in Agra, the carpets and embroidery of Jaipur and the painters of Udaipur who still use camel fat, cow urine and squirrel hair to create their masterpieces. It was impossible not to be impressed and every demonstration left you wanting to buy a piece of history and, more importantly, to help keep alive an ancient art.

There is an obvious thirst for knowledge visible on every street. Whether obtained from the numerous colleges or from a father teaching his young son how to repair a tuk-tuk. Old skills and new survive side by side just as the camels and cars happily share roads repaired by diggers and hand picks. India embraces each passing century with enthusiasm and energy but at the same time manages not only to hold onto its past but bring it along for the ride.

If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our Asia Insiders page.

Filed under: 170